Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. A second one this week, since I couldn't make up my mind: director Ron Howard returns to the company formerly owned by his friend George Lucas with Solo: A Star Wars Story. Might as well take a spin around to the last time that happened.

In the early 1970s, George Lucas might have been busying himself with the resolutely earthbound New Hollywood nostalgia of American Graffiti, but his head was somewhere very, very different. It was while wrapping up that loving tribute to cars, rock & roll, and teenage libido that Lucas began sketching out the very peculiar space-religion and attendant history that would emerge, in a substantially different form, as the ever-iconic Star Wars in 1977. But even before Lucas first put pen to paper to record those immortal words, "This is the story of Mace Windy, a revered Jedi-Bendu of Opuchi, as related to us by C.J. Thorpe, padawaan learner to the famed Jedi"*, he had already laid out the plans for a different myth, one that would move more in the direction of high fantasy than space opera. It would be another eleven years after Star Wars before this earlier treatment, turned into a full script by Bob Dolman, found cinematic expression in the form of Willow, the 1988 box-office underperformer directed by American Graffiti star Ron Howard (it was no friendly nepotism; Howard had already found substantial success as a director of the far more quotidian fantasies Splash and Cocoon). It was the second major setback for Lucas in the mid-to-late-'80s, after the disaster of Howard the Duck, and maybe was even more definitive; post-Willow, Lucasfilm's attempts at creating glorious epic-scale cinematic myths gave way to doing very little other than curating the Star Wars and Indiana Jones brands, and occasionally dabbling in odd little nothings like the 1994 Radioland Murders.

Willow doesn't deserve that kind of history: it's a charming, albeit greatly compromised attempt at doing a monumental epic in just two hours' time, and it's beyond question the most handsome and technologically accomplished film of the '80s fantasy cycle that had largely burned out a few years earlier. As pretty much everybody has pointed out in every review since 1988, the film is an unabashed knock-off: the plot of Star Wars decked out with trappings from The Lord of the Rings. It would be curious to know what part of that was Lucas simply repeating himself to maximise profitability, and how much was because the proto-Willow influenced the development of his space opera; his approach to making his very own Flash Gordon and his approach to making his very own version of Tolkien self-evidently spring from the same kind of impulse. Not that it matters, since the Willow we have feels like a retread, and moreover a retread that helps to point out how helplessly beholden to narrative tropes its most obvious influences were, as well.

It's a Chosen One story, of course, with a fiendish wizard-tyrant trying to take over the whole of the Sort Of Medieval Europe-Like Place where a humble country type finds himself called up to do great things that he didn't know he had in him. In this case, it's the farmer Willow Ufgood (Warwick Davis, who befriended Lucas when he played the main Ewok in Return of the Jedi, and was all of 17 years old when he starred here), who dreams of being a great sorcerer, but mostly has to content himself with caring for his wife Kiaya (Julie Peters) and their two young children, while fending off the repulsive landlord Burglekutt (Mark Northover). Willow is of the race of Nelwyns, a small people living in a woodsy valley, mostly agrarian in nature from what we see (you know, Lucas and company might have been able to get away with this, claiming parallel narrative evolution; but making the protagonist an actual little person? I mean, there's ripping off Tolkien, and there's ripping off Tolkien). The Nelwyns are apparently unaware of the goings-on of the evil Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh), who is hunting for the newborn girl who prophecy tells will end her reign. That baby has been spirited out of Bavmorda's castle, Nockmaar, by a kindly washerwoman, who is able to put the infant on a small makeshift raft heading into the wild down a river, before the queen's lion-dog creatures tear her to pieces. And of course, the raft comes to land right at the edge of the Ufgood farm. So besides himself and Tolkien, Lucas was also stealing from the Bible.

From here it writes itself, quite literally: there's a charismatic untrustworthy rogue of the tall Daikini race, Madmartigan (Val Kilmer), and the tart-tongued princess Sorsha (Joanne Whalley), Bavmorda's daughter, prophesied to turn against Nockmaar's tyranny (and when she does so turn, it's not for any other apparent reason, so might as well blame prophecy; the in-script implication is that it's because she's so hot for Madmartigan, which is a stupefyingly unpersuasive motivation given common sense and everything else in the screenplay) to play the parts of Han Solo and Leia; a pair of tiny Brownies, Franjean (Rick Overton) and Rool (Kevin Pollak) to be the bumbling comic relief in lieu of C-3PO and R2-D2 (and bumbling comic relief with outrageous French accents, no less); our Obi-Wan Kenobi for the evening is the sorceress Fin Raziel (Patricia Hayes), who spends most of the film as one of a few different animals, having been transformed by Bavmorda many years ago. If Bavmorda is the Emperor, Darth Vader is a certain General Kael (Pat Roach), all in black with a swirling cape and a skull mask (the name is an homage to/attack on film critic Pauline Kael). Switching to the other iconic fantasy property, Elrond is the wise local wizard of the Nelwyn village, the High Aldwin (Billy Barty), Galadriel is the forest fairy Cherlindrea (Maria Holvöe), the Black Riders are the hellhounds (there's even a "hide in a ditch by the side of the road" scene) and most of the locations have a pretty direct one-to-one relationship with the places of Tolkien's highly-detailed geography.

None of this is "bad" as such, though as that paragraph suggests, watching Willow can be a somewhat exhausting experience of seeing very obvious narrative beats re-created with only the mildest variation. I suppose one can imagine a perfect viewer who has no familiarity with either the Star Wars trilogy or The Lord of the Rings - I was exactly that viewer, when the film was new, and I was six years old - but that's not much of a defense of the movie as it stands.

Not to mention, in the attempt to do a grandiose epic in the space of a fleet pulp adventure, Willow obliges itself to have a badly imbalanced structure. The film is 126 minutes long, and you can draw a line awfully close to the exact halfway point of that running time, dividing the part of the movie that has far too little plot from the part that has far too much. Like, seriously, a grand total of three plot points are achieved by the midway point, and it's right around then that the story functionally reboots itself with Willow's rescue of Fin Raziel from the island where she's been imprisoned in the form of some species of marsupial. There's precious little structure to any of it, and I wonder if this is the Ron Howard coming out: while there's no individual case where you can blame the directing, Howard's films have a noticeable tendency to play out as disconnected episodes; even in his best film, Apollo 13, it's not so much that this tendency is avoided, as turned into a modest strength. Not that Howard feels at like the auteur of Willow, a movie that feels like the combined efforts of a lot of craftspeople in the best Hollywood tradition; still, there is an incredible shapelessness and lack of proper momentum that comes from somewhere. Could be as simple as trying to capture the shaggy cadence of Star Wars and the scale of The Lord of the Rings in one place, maybe.

All this being said - and it pains me to admit of a film that I watched obsessively from around age 8 to 12, but Willow really is just a colossal mess of storytelling - there's still a great deal of fun to be had here, particularly if you're the sort already inclined to give high fantasy a free pass (given how completely the genre vanished from the cinematic landscape in the 13 years separating Willow from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, I am even more inclined to give out that pass). It is, as I mentioned, far and away the poshest '80s fantasy film, made with all the resources of Lucasfilm, and that makes for quite a hell of a lot of resources. Barbara Lane's costumes, in particular, stand head and shoulders with the costuming anywhere else in the history of the genre, ranging from homey pullovers in soft colors that don't quite fit right, for the pastoral Nelwyn village, to the various kinds of armor clearly suggesting at least three different societies scattered across this desolate world, to the increasingly baroque robes Bavmorda wears during her climactic ritual. It's a lot of storytelling and world-building done simply at the level of correctly figuring out who would wear what clothes, where in the world, and why. It's also worth nodding to Allan Cameron's production design, which in part simply took advantage of a lot of good location scouting, but does also include several distinct settings, all of them well thought-out: the homely stone and wood huts of the Nelwyns, the ancient, grimy stones of the cursed castle Tir Asleen, the crowded, cobbled-together rooms of a damp tavern in the woods; even something as straightforward as a military camp in the snow or an abandoned fishing village have a definite sense of life and history about them. Insofar as fantasy is a genre that depends extensively on world-building (and that has certainly been the case in the English-speaking world since Lord Dunsany was writing in the 1910s), Willow is a triumph: it builds the hell out of a world, making it feel wide and diverse, even if the story has to fudge some things (the degree of isolation of the Nelwyn village, in particular, is hard to figure out).

There are other aspects of the craft besides design that work terrifically. The film boasts one of the best James Horner scores, for one thing, one in which he steals from himself only very slightly (as always, he hasn't full gotten Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan out of his system) and from John Williams only slightly more, while the two big motifs used throughout - one is a kind of yearning melody played in the woodwinds, one is a brassy, Erich Wolfgang Korngold-style adventure cue - are both largely new (turnabout being fair play, Willow would prove to be a rich target for Horner's self-plagiarism later on: Braveheart owes it a clear debt, and through Braveheart, thus does Titanic). It also represents one of the great leaps forward in digital visual effects, having the first substantial use of computer-aided morphing in a big Hollywood production, on top of having the best model work and matte paintings that Industrial Light & Magic could put together at the time (on the other hand, it has some shaky compositing, most obviously when the Brownies are standing on a tied-down Willow, and the two-headed moat dragon is a fine example of the "go motion" stop-motion animation technology ILM had pioneered, though it's not even as convincing as in the seven-year-old Dragonslayer, where that technique was introduced). It's got plenty of spectacle, even if the narrative and the small-scale directing keep that spectacle hemmed in.

Perhaps most importantly, the film has two terrific performances, thanks to Davis and Kilmer. That's balanced by the frankly tedious performances from almost everybody else (Marsh is clearly having a fun time being a hammy, capital-W Wicked villain, but most everybody else with a significant role is flat and toneless, especially Whalley and Gavan O'Herlihy as the bland leader of the barely-seen good guy army), but then, Davis and Kilmer are by a good sight the two most important members of the cast. Their acting styles clash: Davis goes for complete sincerity mixed with a side of nerves (if the teenager was freaking out to be headlining his very own movie, he did a great job of working it into his performance), while Kilmer shoots way beyond Harrison Ford's insouciance into complete smarm, playing Madmartigan as a rascal with a heart of some metal substantially less precious than gold, and a distinctly modernist air about him. Somehow, that contrast ends up fueling the movie: at its best, Willow ends up being a peculiar sort of odd couple fantasy comedy, with Davis and Kilmer's bickering providing a much more lively human core than Lucas's fantasy boilerplate and Dolman's confusedly formal dialogue can possibly manage. It doesn't take away from the sense that Willow is a bit of a mess, but in this case, at least, it's a good, appealing sort of mess.

*The prehistory of Star Wars is weird as hell, as you can probably guess from that sentence. See what you can do to track down a copy of The Secret History of Star Wars by Michael Kaminski, if you're interested in more.